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Print the Legend

[ 43 ] July 30, 2012 |

So SEK put me in an unusual position in his post on so-called “Social Darwinism.” My professional persona is very interested in his arguments. SEK present a compelling argument, at least from what I can tell in such a short post. I was somewhat aware of Richard Hofstadter’s role in creating this narrative and given his influential role in making a generation of American intellectuals think the Populists were a bunch of reactionary yokels, I’m not surprised he would create a past to serve his New Deal political aims. If my work dealt with these issues in any way, I’m sure I’d at the very least mention SEK’s dissertation in a footnote if not center it in the argument.

Temperamentally, I am completely down with all of this. I dislike mythology of any kind and so I really appreciate having a more accurate accounting of this line of thought. It’s probably a bit too detailed to affect how I teach my Gilded Age course too much, but I will probably change the wording when I talk about these issues to express SEK’s general idea.

On the other hand, I also have a political persona. These two personas may inform each other, but they aren’t the same thing. In the political arena of this blog or the larger national narratives, so-called Social Darwinism evokes a series of thoughts and impressions that do political work for us. People don’t by and large know a lot about the Gilded Age. There’s only a certain amount of terms a writer can use with even an educated audience like we have here at LGM that will create a response. And Social Darwinism is so ingrained with a series of pernicious ideas that allow a writer to move a conversation without getting bogged down in explanations that it’s hard to see replacing it with Lamarckianism or Spencerism or Sumnerism. Nobody would know what I’m talking about and my argument would be diluted or lost.

Social Darwinism may be mistitled, but it is too useful to give up when talking about the Gilded Age in a public forum, even for the noble cause of historical complexity and accuracy. But I probably will include an asterisk with a link to SEK’s post every time I use it here in the future.

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  1. dp says:

    Social Spencerism, rather than Darwinism. Feel better now? Regardless of the name, the concept is the same.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      No, because nobody knows what that means. If I write a column for Alternet, am I supposed to use Social Spencerism? Any editor will just change that to Social Darwinism.

      • Aaron says:

        Well, you’re basically making an argument about meritocracy taken to an unhealthy extreme, but “radical meritocracy” doesn’t have the same nefarious ring to it.

        • David Kaib says:

          But meritocracy here isn’t an explanation, it’s a rationalization. It’s not as if anyone developed an abstract idea of merit, looked at the world and discovered those at the top embodied it. Instead they assumed that some version of individual merit drove distributions, interpreted the world through that lens and collected any info that reinforced that view.

          • Aaron says:

            Yes, and that is almost precisely the role played by discussions of “fitness” in the theory of natural selection: the fittest animals are those who survive to reproduce, and those who survive to reproduce are the fittest. QED.

        • Left_Wing_Fox says:

          I used the term “vicious meritocracy” in the last thread, which is probably more effective.

          Given the high bar required before one is capable of raising and educating children, surviving catastrophe or serious illness, remaining solvent and debt-free, and still saving enough for retirement, I think it’s pretty accurate as well.

      • DrDick says:

        I think that given the established usage, there is nothing wrong with the label “Social Darwinism”, as long as you recognize that there is nothing actually Darwinian about these theories and philosophies. I think most social scientists are clear on this, certainly that is the case in anthropology. It may be a bit more problematic in popular discourse, but still is a handy shorthand for a particular set (but not all of the social evolutionary theories of the period) of 19th century unilineal social evolutionary theories.

  2. eli says:

    I like it. I’ve had similar debates about “neo-feudalism”… but not with anyone as sharp and informed as SEK. You were gracious and honest. All good.

    One of the things i love about our age is the relative efficiency of neologisms. Don’t be afraid to theorize the terms yourself. You have a keep eye and facility with teh languages.

  3. SEK says:

    Just for the record, this isn’t one of those “Mommy and Daddy are fighting” things. As I told Erik on Facebook, if there’s one hobby-horse we’re allowed to beat to death forever, it’s the thesis of our unread dissertations.

  4. Dave says:

    Much of the scientific-racial thought of the period up to the 1920s/30s doesn’t just sidestep Darwin, it mangles everything he said on the way. Not just by adopting essentially Lamarckian background narratives, but also by being concerned with the preservation, not of adaptive mutations, but with a pre-existing allegedly ‘pure’ racial condition of a given population, and the politically-orchestrated [they wished] resistance to forces working to change that. ‘Social D’ is Darwinianism stood on its head. But it always has been – even before it got the label it has.

  5. rea says:

    Well, yeah, Darwin wasn’t a Darwinist–Darwinism necesarily is something that developed after, and in reaction to Darwin, and therefore did not accurately represent his ideas. Similarly, Marx wasn’t a Marxist, Freud wasn’t a Freudian, and Christ wasn’t a Christian.

    • bradp says:

      Social Statics predated On the Origin of Species by nearly a decade.

      • rea says:

        I know. Spencer later put a Darwinian gloss on his pre-existing ideas, which is why, in a universe in which Spencer is regarded as a leading advocate of Darwinism, I say Darwin wasn’t a Darwinist.

        • DrDick says:

          While that may be true in popular discourse, I do not think it is true in social science, certainly not in anthropology. While we often refer to these theories as “Social Darwinism”, it is always with the caveat that there is not relationship between them and what Darwin actually wrote.

  6. bradp says:

    Are you “Printing the Legend” or “Erecting the Strawman”, because it doesn’t seem you really have done much to actually understand Spencer’s political philosophy?

  7. Hogan says:

    The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman nor an empire. Discuss.

  8. Pithlord says:

    Shorter Loomis:

    I’m a hack. I’m uniterested in what actually happened in the past if it interferes with propaganda in the present.

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